Last September I was having breakfast while scrolling through my twitter I came across a tweet from a well-known consultant that caught my attention.
“So you want to fix your current situation, but you don’t want to understand what you did to reach this point… :-\”
I answered, “No, you don’t need to understand what you did to reach this point”.
We engaged in a conversation, another guy joined our discussion and asked me to propose a paper for CAS 2016. So, I decided to send it. I thought to myself “well, I guess it is not that obvious for many people”. And here we are.
If we look at the tweet, it summarizes perfectly conventional wisdom coming from the engineering and therapeutic background. Something is broken, fix it!
This approach never worked for me personally. In my life, whenever I had a problem, looking for the root cause or analyzing possible causes always felt painful, slow and it drained my mental energy.
Until I discovered this approach. I’m not saying this is the right approach or the only approach. This is a powerful alternative to our typical way of working with complex systems.
Problems vs Solutions
Focusing on problems leads us to the past. It leads us to try to change what can’t be changed. Focusing on problems leads to blame, excuses and justifications. It’s complicated, slow, and often drains our mental energy.
Focusing on solutions, however, immediately creates energy in our minds. We open up ideas and possibilities.
This doesn’t mean we don’t address problems, it means we address them by analyzing the way forward, instead of their causes.
If people were cars, fixing people problems would be easy. Check the engine, find the cause of the trouble replace the faulty part and move on. But people, and social systems, are not machines. Focusing on problems and their causes is a great way of getting cars back on the road, but it’s not much use when you are trying to help people move forward.
John wants a new job
John wants to step into a new role in his organization, but he lacks confidence.
Some people might try to help John by asking WHY he feels this way.
Perhaps the answer lies in this past: “When I was a child a teacher humiliated me in front of the class”.
But, concentrating on the causes of his problem soon leaves John buried under an avalanche of painful memories. He knows why he lacks confidence but nothing in his life has changed. He still feels just the same.
Focusing in problems turns you into an expert on what is wrong. To become an expert in what is right you have to start thinking about solutions.
A helpful question to John would be “let’s just suppose that something happened and you had all the confidence you needed, what would you be doing differently?”
- “I’d have the courage to be honest with my team”
- “I’d be able to say what I really think in meetings”
- “I’d be speaking at conferences and enjoying it”
Now that John has a picture of how he’d like to be, he has something to work towards.
This is what Solution Focus is about. Instead of emphasizing what’s wrong, we encourage people to think about what is right, we encourage people to look at the resources they already have, at their strengths.
There are two essential issues with how conventional wisdom tries to solve problems or create sustainable change. These two issues have to do with a lack of understanding of how our brain works, from one side, and from neglecting the principles of complex adaptive systems from the other.
Complex vs Complicated
The history of psychology, psychiatry, management and team development has been focused on detecting what is wrong and fixing it. Assuming that humans are like machines, where you just go and fix the wrong piece and everything gets back to normal. We are treating Complex Adaptive Systems as if they were cars.
Thinking in problems puts our brain in defensive mode, raising levels of different substances like cortisol and adrenaline and, activating our limbic system. When we focus on problems and weaknesses instead of engaging people’s curiosity and imagination and inspiring them, we actually diminish them.
The Unlearning Myth
We cannot unlearn or delete a behavior or attitude from our brain. It doesn’t work like that. Our brain is very good a detecting patterns and repetitions and automating them, once automated they cannot be deleted. So, trying to be less of something is useless.
But, we do it all the time.
We want to be less something, get rid of something, give up something, our war against whatever, stop doing something, etc …
On the other hand, our brain has a powerful capability, Neuroplasticity, which allows it to create new paths, new wirings, and new neural networks. So, you can create something new, which is more powerful than the old habit. And, when we focus on solutions, that is exactly what we are doing, we are creating something new.
It is creating, versus fixing.
Brief Therapy was developed in the early 1980s by a research group in Milwaukee including Insoo Kim Berg and Steve Shazer. The group was driven to find something effective and efficient to help clients start successfully doing whatever they strive for. They began to experiment with “what might work” instead of finding “what caused the problem”. By concentrating on building solutions, they were able to reduce the average consultation time by 70% – retaining the same success rate as more usual forms of therapy.
In 1997 Peter Szabó started to transfer these findings to the world of coaching. The result is called Solution Focused Coaching.
Perhaps, the key contribution of Brief Therapy to Solution Focus Coaching has been the Miracle Question.
Appreciate Inquiry, Intentional Change Theory and Positive Psychology, all in different ways, assert the value of looking not at disorder, problems, causes and weaknesses, but being concerned instead with what is useful, functional and desired.
Progress can be made without seeing people and organizations as things that need to be fixed.
All three approaches are rooted in years of application and research. All have shown to be effective in action, in organizational work and elsewhere. All share an interest in focusing on what already works rather than on what the problems may be.
People have problems and they want to get rid of them. But what all these approaches advise, in their different ways, is that identifying the problem is less of a guide to making progress than focusing elsewhere.
When people change in a sustainable way they go through this in a discontinuous fashion. When we change we don’t do it as a smooth linear fashion.
There are periods of long stability followed by very short periods of rapid change. In complexity theory and systems theory these are called moments of emergence.
Actually the way we experience them is they’re kind of epiphanies. They’re like oh my God moments.
Positive Emotional Attractor
What moves us ahead in the change process is the positive emotional attractor. This combination of invoking a possible part of your vision and your strengths is what we call activating or arousing the Positive Emotional Attractor. We diminish people when we focus on problems and weaknesses, or we impose our will or we try to engineer or fix them. Instead when we engage people’s natural powers of curiosity and imagination we inspire them.
The difference between the positive emotional attractor and the negative emotional attractor is the difference in thinking about your dreams versus reality. It’s thinking about possibilities versus problem. Hope versus fear. Feeling like an optimist versus a pessimist.
- The Positive Emotional Attractor is:
- Feeling positive and hopeful; thinking about the future, dreams, and possibilities;
- Being optimistic, focusing on one’s strengths;
- Excited about trying something new, experimenting; and
- Liberation of dopamine
- Positive expectations
- The Negative Emotional Attractor is:
- Feeling negative and fear; thinking about the past or present, expectations of others and problems;
- Being pessimistic, focusing on one’s weaknesses;
- Feeling obligated to things you “should” or are “expected by others” to do, like a performance improvement plan;
- Liberation of noradrenaline and cortisol
- Flight or fight response
Albert Einstein once said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness as the one that created it.” One of the key aspects of SF Coaching is that we mainly work on creating awareness of the solution. We switch from exploring the level of the problem to exploring the level of solutions. We can create new realities with simple goal-oriented questions; realities that open up completely new options and choices.
In Solution Focus coaching we assume that the solution has nothing to do with the problem. The solution does not care why the problem occurred.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken
By ‘broke’, we mean that somebody in the organization is dissatisfied and wants something to be different. We start to work with the people who want something different and are prepared to do something about it – not the others.
And it is not only that. Many times we think we know what is broken, but that might be just a symptom. It is difficult to assess cause and effect in a complex system. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space in a complex system.
Find what works, and do more of it
No problem happens all the time. If you note when the solution is happening already, whether spontaneously, by accident, or even only in part, you have priceless knowledge.
Stop doing what doesn’t work, and do something else
Sometimes the solution to the problem can become a problem itself – a kind of vicious circle that we need to break out of. Experience shows that a vicious circle can be broken by attempts at a solution that look paradoxical at first. Attempts to break the circle seem absurd, unexpected, or irrational. They are often essentially surprising.
In order to break up blocked situations, we often have to do something very different and have to leave our well-trodden paths.
Analytical Questions vs Exploring Solutions (Shaping the Future)
We use available energy and time solely for exploring solutions. No analytical questions about the past but questions about shaping the future
Illuminating Resources. Ask about and uncover competences and skills
We assume that all skills necessary to master a turbulent situation are already present. It is not about covering deficits but about illuminating existing skills and strengths and using them for the development of a solution.
Find new perspectives. Change the focus of your awareness.
We want to change the focus of our awareness to something new.
Solution Circle (by Daniel Meier)
Real Case Example: Crisis in a Scrum Team
Maria, the Scrum Master of a team in a software company, felt helpless with her team. Things were not running smoothly in the team for weeks, and at the last team meeting, conflict finally broke out when PO introduced the new strategy. Some team members had fundamentally different ideas on certain central aspects. Others felt they were only given the boring work and that this would not change in the future. Two team members who where not getting along started arguing about every little detail. The team was under a lot of pressure and in addition to that, a projected reorganization had produced a lot of insecurity. And, on top of that, there had been some complaints already about the performance of the team.
Maria asked me to help her in preparing and facilitating a workshop.
Looking at this situation, where would you start from? Strategy, boring work, conflict between two guys, reorganization, team performance? What is the root cause? Where is the real problem?
Often, we do not have a clear-cut and unambiguous problem in a team but various problems that influence one another.
Difficult, isn’t it?
Now, let’s look at what we did here. We organized a two-day workshop
We started by working on the Future Perfect. We asked team members the following questions:
- If our team were able to solve the problems and conflicts at hand really well and could turn into a true “superteam” – what would this team look like in two years time?
- What would you notice that told you that everything is working well in the team?
- What would our colleagues and customers be saying about us?
- What exactly would each of us be doing differently?
Team members were a bit surprised by this kind of task since they had expected to get ample opportunities to complain. Nevertheless, they overcame their initial resistance quickly and started describing their ideas for the future.
As a second step in the workshop, Maria asked the individual team members to place themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 with regards to the desirable future. Team members positioned themselves between 3 and 4. Then she asked: ‘What are we doing that gets us to 3 (or 4)? We could be much lower, but you say we are already at 3 (or 4). What is it that we are doing pretty well, then?’
Here the Scrum Master introduces the element of Scales. This instrument makes it possible for us to find out what is already working. Here we look for everything we can identify as small glimpses into a desirable future. We look for things that are already working and we do more of them.
At the end of the first morning the team were already exploring possibilities of getting a small step closer to 10.
Maria gave a small Observation Task to team members: ‘Choose three days in the coming two weeks in which you will see if you can find small visible signs of the “superteam” state that you would like to have in the future.’
The second meeting turned out to be a small highlight. They spend one hour to tell each other what they had discovered in that could be interpreted as first glimpses of the team future.
The focus had changed once and for all. They were all able to change their frame of reference and look at themselves and their work with different eyes. The problems have not been completely solved but this set free the energy that they needed to implement the measures that they had agreed. Their confidence that they would actually do it was extremely high: they could do it together!
There are two tools in the market which are based on analyzing your character strengths:
The aim is to help the client create an awareness of what’s best about themselves and others, and to assist them in embracing and using these strengths. With this heightened awareness they will be better positioned to build positive relationships, discover deeper happiness, and achieve their life goals.
Although it might be needed in some situations, we spend too much time and energy trying to get better at our weaknesses. What we should do instead is use our strengths to by-pass our weaknesses. Don’t waste your time getting better at your weaknesses.
- What is the objective of this coaching?
- What do you want to achieve today?
- What do you want to achieve in the long term?
- How will you know this coaching has been of use to you?
- The future perfect
- On a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 representing the future perfect and 0 the worst it has ever been, where are you on that scale today?
- You are at n now: What did you do to get this far?
- How would you know you had got to n+1?
Know-how and Resources
- What helps you perform at n on the scale, rather than 0?
- When does the outcome already happen for you, even a little bit?
- What did you do to make it happen? How did you do that?
- What did you do differently?
- What would other people say you are doing well?
Affirm and Action
- What’s already going well?
- What is the next small step? What would you like to do personally, straight away?
- You are at n now, what would it take to get you to n+1?
- What’s better?
- What did you do that made the change happen?
- What effects have the changes had?
- What do you think will change next?
Next time your children or your team comes to you with a problem, you have two options. You can either ask “Why did this happen?” or ask “What shall we do about this?” Your choice.
Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting.
If you need help, contact me!